Fashion has always been an expression of identity, and for many countries, it’s also been a way to flaunt their culture and celebrate their own unique style. But as globalisation accelerates, fashion trends are spread all over, some through cultural appreciation, where the cultural source is respected, and others unfortunately through cultural appropriation, where the source is exploited.
Either way, people in the Western world are now toting fashion items from the other side of the globe without knowing the history of what they’re wearing; this Cultural Diversity Week, we’ve whipped up a quick explainer on the cultural significance of some wardrobe trends, so you can think before you try.
You know the ones: huge and gold, dangling almost dangerously off someone’s ear. A few years back as the chicana style — characterised by bandanas, sharp makeup, big hair — gained popularity with Instagram influencers, Latina and Hispanic women came out to explain the significant link between their culture and hoop earrings. Many cultural appropriation pieces that surfaced during the time told the same story: gold hoops were gifted to young Latina women in childhood and represented a powerful token of their Latina femininity in a Western world. In a 2017 VICE article, an anonymous author writes: “In the grand scheme of things, hoop earrings may seem insignificant. But… white women did not start the ‘trend’ of over-sized hoop earrings and yet they're the ones being praised for donning the ‘edgy’ style.”
You may instantly think of the ‘70s hippies and their floral sleeves and tassels, but what you might not know is that “bohemian” was once used as a pejorative against the Romani people. An ethnic group widely called “gypsies”, Roma were historically discriminated against and persecuted in Western and Central Europe, and their clothing often reflects their faith and culture: sari-like flowing skirts, scarves, coin jewellery, peasant blouses — sound familiar? But by the mid 19th century, bohemian came to mean an unconventional, travelling, and artistic lifestyle, and by the time flower power exploded onto the scene, the true origin of Bohemian style was largely forgotten.
They’ve been described as the “new teen heartthrobs” and they’re out in full force on TikTok, biting their lips and swooping their hair to millions of viewers. But e-boys also kicked off their own fashion trend, a painfully hip mix of skater, emo, Tumblr-age goth, and ‘90s, an aesthetic that is long established in the K-pop world. We’d be lying if we said we think the rise of BTS hasn’t had anything to do with it; over the last few years, Korean boy band BTS has shot to international popularity with an online Western fanbase as rabid as the one back home, and the e-boy’s on-the-nose, uniquely edgy style mirrors the costume-like fashion of K-pop stars. Not to mention that iconic middle-part haircut…
While grillz have been around during ancient times as dental care in Egypt or Etrusca, there's no denying that they officially broke into the mainstream when hip hop edged into the pop music industry. As African-American rappers and rap fans began indulging in teeth jewellery, grillz became an icon for young African-American men and black culture. That's why, when Madonna showed up to the 2014s Grammys with a gold grill, the internet was left fuming; many asked what gives her the right to exploit the culture just because she can, and even Madonna herself replied, "It pisses everybody off when I wear my grill, so that's why I wear it." While the internet still argues over whether grillz are representative of black or hip hop culture, we wonder whether the two can ever be separated.
This blog was written for Cultural Diversity Week, as Collarts encourages curiosity, conversation, and community from 21–29 March.